I am trying to convince my classmates that I’m black. Or at least not completely white…
I once began a college essay with the words above, titling the piece “On Whiteness.” The phrase “person of color” was getting very popular at the time, and I was taking a Black World Literature class. I’d become more aware of the divisions that the language surrounding race can create. No longer were we referring to a Caucasian with one-eighth African blood as an “octoroon,” but everybody who is white now belonged to one class (white=oppressors), and everyone else was “of color” (colored=oppressed). Something about that approach, perhaps it was the exclusivity of it, irked me. So I penned the piece on whiteness.
I thought of all of this recently, of course, due to the election of Barrack Obama, for whom I voted. Over the course of his campaign, Obama made a believer out of me. (I’ll admit it—I have a “Hope” pin.)
Pundits now are talking about a “colorless” society, but I think they’re getting ahead of themselves. We need to reflect on how far we’ve come, but also how far we need to go.
To start, consider how the “white” race used to define and segregate itself. Just a century ago, Slavic peoples who helped settle Pittsburgh were referred to in the city’s newspaper as “mixed race”—they weren’t regarded as fully white.
My late grandmother, Helen, whose father, Franjo, came from Croatia before World War I, suffered discrimination for her ethnicity when she was a kid. With some prodding, she told me how some of her classmates had called her a “Bohunk,” and that some also had done so while throwing mud on her dress. (Croatians particularly hated being called “hunky,” because they were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Her father, Franjo, was fired from his job at the iron ore mine because (in part) he voted for a candidate opposed to the mine owner’s candidate in a local election. My grandmother's people are olive-skinned, and lived in the part of their Minnesota mining town in which the Italians lived. Not exactly white?
Nowadays, few people outside of the Aryan Nations would consider a white person with the name Cervac, or Zivic to not be white. Generations before most Croatians arrived in America, the Irish, who’d been brutally ruled by the English for centuries, were the ones who weren’t quite white. The Emerald Isle’s sons and daughters realized this when they went job-seeking in the New World, and were confronted with Help Wanted signs that stipulated “Irish Need Not Apply.” They also saw it in the racist depictions of Irish people in newspaper illustrations.
Given all of this baggage—I am Irish and Croatian, plus many other nationalities, which makes me particularly mixed—I’ll have to do it again. That is, claim kinship to the phrase “Person of color.” Call me Kubla Barnes. I am part Slav (original meaning=slave), as anyone who looks into my eyes and notices their deep setting and their slant can see.
As a kid growing up in Bellevue with my eleven brothers and sisters, we all recognized which of us had more “Chinese” eyes. One of my brothers, whom I’ll just call “Cato,” is one of the few kids in the family who most resembles his Croatian heritage. With his olive skin, black hair and deep-set eyes, Cato could pass for a full-blooded Croat, though we kids are just one-quarter Croatian. All of us are Croatian Quadroons, so to speak, but Cato would be what white people used to refer to as a “throwback.”
Another of my brothers, whom I’ll call Chun King, also is olive-skinned, and has a Roman nose, so even more than Cato, he could pass for Italian, and has been mistaken for one. Cato and Chun King’s resemblance to Croatians, and Italians, reminds me of the mixed background of Croatians. Depending upon which scholar you believe, Croatians originated in western Afghanistan and migrated to central Europe more than 2,000 years ago; or they originated in the Caucasus region, the ancestral home of Slavic peoples. Since the time of the Romans, Croats have been known as Slavs, who are mixed race Eurasians.
The Croats made their way to the Balkans around 600 AD, and mixed with the Romans who were living there. The Romans had mixed earlier with the descendants of the Celts and Illyrians, who’d settled the Balkans long before. Croatians are just one small tribe or Europe, but I think they are as purely “white” as any European tribe. As DNA research moves forward, racial and tribal distinctions seem to blur. Scientists recently concluded that the ancestors of the people of the British Isles—Irish, English and others—originated in what is now Spain, 10,000 years ago.
So is it a wonder that there are darker-skinned “Dark Irish?” They were probably all dark at one time. And some day, most Irish might be dark once again. Experts say that’s where the world is heading. Eventually, they say, most of us will be part of one big mixed race.
Now we have a black president, and I think that’s a good thing. But we still haven’t had a Slavic president, or an Italian-American president, though Kucinich and Feraro tried. One hundred years from now, will our first “mixed race” president be viewed as the first truly “American” president? I hope not. Maybe in a century or so, we’ll all see each other as people of color.